Thursday, June 30, 2005

Indies Rock DVD - Dramatic Girl

Dramatic Girl DVD Posted by Hello

I think I would get along with whoever it is that chose the bands featured in the live rock show compilation DVD Indies Rock Vol. 4 Dramatic Girl.

First off, among the ten Japanese rock bands the DVD records is advantage Lucy. Anyone who has the vision and good taste to bring into the world a new video recording of the Tokyo guitar pop band must be a fine character.

But that’s not all—the person who chose the bands also appears to have an excellently eclectic love of Japanese bands. In addition to pop-rock bands like advantage Lucy, Condor 44 and School Girl 69, the DVD also casts the spotlight on purely punk groups like Lolita #18 and Bleach of Okinawa.

It’s a bit hard to explain how cool this is to someone who hasn’t spent some time in Tokyo’s huge but faction-oriented live music scene: you don’t usually run into people here who go to both advantage Lucy and Lolita #18 shows, even though both are great (if very different stylistically and in almost all other ways), so it’s a happy surprise to find a DVD like this with a full spectrum of Japanese pop and rock sounds. As the title Dramatic Girl suggests, the DVD seems to have compiled girl bands (like Lolita #18), bands with female singers (like Lucy), and bands with girl players (like Condor, which has a female bassist). But I don’t think it was the need to find group that include girls that resulted in this band line-up—there are plenty such bands—rather, I’d like to think it was a question of taste.

The DVD is a great primer on the music coming out of Japan. I’d never seen a Lolita #18 show until I saw the one on this DVD, for instance, and I developed a strong urge to go check out their next performance. The singer, with blindingly day-glo pink hair and a bright yellow shirt, is brilliant. She has a rough, whiney voice that travels during shows somewhere in the farthest frontiers where voiced words still count as singing. She has that manic look in her eyes that’s almost a cliché for punk rockers, as well as other punk conventions such as wearing red tartan trousers, but she’s so good at connecting with the audience you forget all that.

Advantage Lucy plays one of their oldest songs, Sunny, as well as one of their newest, Shiosai (which means ‘the sound of the sea’). It’s impossible to recreate on DVD the feeling of seeing these wonderful musicians up close, surrounded by their sound and their fans, but the disk still gives a sense of what their shows are like. At the center is Aiko, the singer, her eyes closed most of the time, absorbed in melodies of astonishing beauty.

I highly recommend this DVD, which is available on Amazon Japan (your DVD player needs to be able to play Japan region DVDs though).

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Orange Plankton, Solo

Singer Yumi of Orange Plankton. Posted by Hello

A couple minutes’ walk from Koenji train station in Tokyo, in an alley filled with pastel-colored girlie bars, is Club Roots, a brand-new music live house. Here, pop band Orange Plankton did a solo show, one of their first in a while.

The building that houses Club Roots is quite extraordinary. It’s an Okinawa-themed building. On the first floor is an “Okinawa steakhouse”, while above it is a regular Okinawan food restaurant, and the third floor is home to an Okinawan culture center, where events such as karate demonstrations will be held. Club Roots itself will feature Okinawan musicians, and will serve Orion beer and awamori, the island’s alcoholic drinks of choice. The creation of a building like this is a reflection of the current Okinawa fad sweeping Japan, but the facilities look interesting and I’ll likely visit it again.

Orange Plankton’s show started dramatically, with first only the drummer, Tamarou, appearing on stage and doing a solo, then the bassist Tsuji joining him and doing a duet, the pianist Yuki next making it a trio, and finally the singer Yumi appearing on stage to begin the songs. An acoustic guitarist played with the band at one point, and a violinist also later joined them. It was surprising how good the quartet sounded with the addition of guitar and violin sounds. I felt that Orange Plankton songs would probably sound good in a variety of arrangements because the original musical compositions are so strong and appealing.

All in all, it was a very satisfying hour and a half of music. I was surprised to turn around during the show to find that the tiny club was packed. The only not-quite gripe I had about the show is that the stage was too small for Yumi to move around much. This band deserves a much bigger stage.

Orange Plankton at Club Roots. Posted by Hello

After the show, talking over drinks with a friend, I tried to explain what might be called the Orange Plankton dilemma. The problem for them is, the music they play is unlike any of the number of fad Japanese musical genres, meaning that they won’t automatically get fans of those genres to boost their popularity in the short run. But because they are making their own sound (which is very pop, but with a feeling also of jazz, rock and even classical) and it’s good and original, little by little they will likely attract a following. I feel those people will stick around longer with the band than fans of passing musical fads.

Once Orange Plankton gets in your blood, they seem to be there for good. I read a message on their Internet bulletin board from a guy who saw the band for the first time during their Okinawa show. It has a breathless tone, but I can understand how he feels. He is himself a singer who’s been discouraged by lack of success, but when he heard the band, “it felt like something warm, like a small bright gentle light was entering me,” and that “although I’ve heard many different types of music, this sort of sensation was really a first for me and I didn’t know how to describe it in words.” He goes on to talk about “the warmth that enveloped the audience in an instant, and a singing voice that seems to reach like a light to the end of the universe.”

I wouldn’t quite describe Orange Plankton’s music in those terms, but I do think his words provide good evidence you should try to see this band live if possible.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Condor 44, Vasallo Crab 75, advantage Lucy

Condor 44 Posted by Hello

A three-course Japanese indie pop music feast at the Que Wednesday night. Performing were Condor 44, Vasallo Crab 75, and advantage Lucy--all three of whom I'm a big fan.

Big news was announced at the event: advantage Lucy singer Aiko said the band is going to start selling a four-song maxi-single on July 22, ahead of the release of its eagerly-awaited full album Echo Park (which it now looks like come out at the end of September). The single will be sold only at Lucy shows and through the band's Internet page (the album will be sold everywhere).

The maxi-single isn't finished yet, and the Lucy guys are considering putting into the CD one live recording song, which they taped at the Que show.

Therefore, during a break they asked the audience to cheer loudly and applaud "fast and heavy" (as Japanese TV producers apparently ask live audiences to do) after songs so it sounds good on the CD being recorded.

The audience took the Lucy instructions to heart and clapped more enthusiastically than usual after each song.

advantage Lucy Posted by Hello

A strange thing happened though, because of the Lucy request. The audience, normally fairly subdued and shy, turned up the volume of their cheers. But when Lucy later announced that they will be going on a three-city Japan tour (Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya) in August, and the crowd oohed and cheered and applauded to that, it wasn't clear whether the audience members were responding this way because they were genuinely happy, or they were still half play-acting enthusiasm. Or so Aiko wondered on stage.

Though, really, we were all happy that new Lucy works were coming out and the band was about to hit the road.

The members of Lucy themselves said after the show that they may have tried to play too perfectly for the recording, making the act less spontaneous than usual, but they seemed brilliant as usual to me.

Particularly stirring was Aiko's singing. Not a flashy vocalist, she nevertheless commands the audience's attention because on stage she's utterly immersed in her songs. Like someone in the ocean, she sways lightly with the waves of the music. Her voice is delicate as silk in the quiet songs, but in the more intense tunes, she gives it everything. A real star, in my book.

Vasallo Crab 75 Posted by Hello

Opening the event was Condor 44, a good trio that does shoe-gazer-type music. The petite girl on bass is skilled and totally rocks.

And Vasallo Crab, the final act, was hot as always. Anyone in Tokyo who likes funk and indies pop owes it to him/herself to see this excellent band.

Talking to Vasallo singer Daisuke Kudo after the show, I found out, to my surprise, that he doesn't know the names of the chords used in Vasallo songs, and he creates the music by exploring combinations of musical notes. Which may explain Vasallo's unique sound. He said if someone had to transcribe Vasallo songs it would be a difficult task.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Advantage Lucy Drummer Banba Quits

Kaname Banba, who was advantage Lucy's drummer from the beginning, announced he is quitting the band, and also ending his music career. "Music ceased to be the most important thing for me," he wrote in Lucy's home page to explain his decision.

Banba's announcement made official what was already, de facto, reality. For the last couple of years he hadn't played at Lucy's shows, and as far as I know he didn't record with the band. I had heard that he was now focused on a new career.

I've said this before but to say it once again, though I love advantage Lucy as they are now, I wish I could have seen them in the late 90's when all four original members were there, with Banba on drums and Fukumura-kun playing guitar, recording masterpieces like the album Fanfare. But I didn't know about the band back then, and there's nothing you can do about past ignorance. At least I was able to see Banba when he played drums for his other band, Orang, smiling always on stage.

Take care, Banba-san.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Pop Chocolat - J-Pop Superstars-To-Be

Pop Chocolat at the Que. Posted by Hello

I’ve seen the makings of J-Pop superstars, and their name is Pop Chocolat.

Listening to the opening notes of the show by this gorgeous and brilliant three-girl band from Kyoto, I found my eyes well up with tears. It was as if my ears and brain instinctively knew they were in for an extraordinary rock music treat. And they were.

Looking like ordinary, giggly Japanese girls, Pop Chocolat nevertheless RIPPED when they started playing their music, which they call alternative girly-pop. They went effortlessly from crisp pop tunes to crashing rock passages, and all three sang beautifully too.

They also looked fabulous on stage. All three had short hair that didn’t quite touch the shoulder, and the guitarist and bassist played matching aqua-colored instruments.

The 30 minute-show ended much too fast. But at least I know there are two shows in Tokyo coming up in the next few weeks. I dashed to buy their first mini-album, which they were selling outside.

I better go see them again soon because if my premonition is correct, I soon won’t be able to see these superstars-to-be in a small club like the Que, as I did tonight. Of course, I may not be a very good judge of how well a band will do—Japan Live specializes in indies bands, after all. There’s something wrong with the world though if Pop Chocolat doesn’t enjoy at least some success.

Pop Chocolat. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Music Meme Mike

Frangiapani’s Martine has passed me the music meme mike, so here goes:

Total volume of music files on my computer: 381.8MB. (I had more than 10GB of iPod songs, but my computer crashed recently and I lost all the files. I still have them on my iPod but don’t know how to transfer the songs back to my iTune library. Anyone know?)

Song playing right now: Waffles’ “Life”, the first song on their album Orangery.

The last CD I bought: Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich. London Symphony Orchestra. (I don’t ONLY listen to J-Pop. Plus this CD only cost about 1,100 yen ((about $11)).)

Five songs or tunes I listen to a lot, or that mean a lot to me:

Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl” from Daydream Nation—I discovered this album my freshman year in college, and it seemed to open up new musical possibilities, especially the first three songs, and particularly this song.

my bloody valentine’s “swallow” from tremolo e.p.—Contained in a cassette tape my roommate brought from the U.S., this song became part of my personal soundtrack during a year of studies in Beijing.

Pizzicato Five’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street"—Listened to repeatedly in the late-90’s, this song embodied for me the elegance and excitement of Tokyo in that period (even though, to be sure, the economy was in a prolonged slump…).

The Bill Evans Trio’s “In Love in Vain” from Moonbeams—Obsessively listened to during a period when I was feeling empty, the colors of the song seemed almost unbearably vivid.

Advantage Lucy’s “Chikyu- (far away version)” from Killermont Street 2001—This song caught my attention in a compilation album. It was my first listen of advantage Lucy, and it started many things.


I’m supposed to pass the mike to five other people, but can’t think of anyone. If anyone is interested in continuing with this meme, be my guest!

Monday, June 13, 2005

CDs of Note: The Clicks; Waffles

The Clicks' Magic of White. Posted by Hello

The Clicks, who are three girls from Yokohama, play ultra-catchy punk-pop tunes in their wonderful and addictive second album, Magic of White. For a sample of their magic, check out their music video for the song “block castle” in the homepage of K.O.G.A. Records (which released the album—click on the Chinese characters second from right on the top next to ‘mail’, and then click on the ‘PV’ next to the Clicks at the top)—it's a surreal video that reminds me of something out of the psychedelic 60’s (at one point, an amp floats up and starts wobbling in the air, for example). ‘Love Bomb’, ‘The Line of Self-Satisfaction’ and the song ‘Magic of Love’ are also standouts. Actually, I like all the tunes on this album—it’s constantly on my iPod.

Magic of White is more pop than the rock-heavy debut album, Come to Vivid Girl’s Room, and the three girls have discovered vocal harmony in a big way, decorating the songs’ sonic landscape with their three bright voices. Like their debut effort, this isn’t an album that will make musical history with its innovation—all their songs sound familiar. But, if you’re like me, history will be far from your mind as you listen to the Click girls having a blast with their music.

The Waffles' Orangery. Posted by Hello

I don’t know if it’s that great an idea for me to be introducing the Waffles’ Orangery because unless you live in Tokyo, it’s nearly impossible to find this new mini-album. For reasons that aren’t clear to me, the pop quartet decided to only sell this CD at their shows and at the tiny Mona Records in Shimokitazawa (I myself got my copy from my friend Dr. I because I missed their last solo show). But it’s an outstanding collection of pop songs so I’ll talk about it anyway. You can hear MP3 samples of the tunes on their homepage.

The Waffles’ music is clearly pop, but often with a jazzy feel that makes many of their songs swing (try the second MP3 sample in their homepage to see what I mean—click on the image of the record cover to go to the MP3 page). Singer and keyboardist Kyoko Ono, who writes all of the Waffles songs, sings with gentle passion. Japanese female vocalists often sing in a higher voice than their western counterparts, but there’s a lot of variation between the high voices. Ono, for one, has an appealing voice and style of singing that always makes me think she is smiling as she delivers her lines (and that’s how she looks on stage too).

If you’re interested in Orangery and have a chance to visit Tokyo, why not make the trip to neighborhood of Shimokitazawa, and have a coffee or beer at the comfy café/music shop Mona Records after buying a copy?

Friday, June 10, 2005

Advantage Lucy, Others Live On DVD

Japanese pop band advantage Lucy's homepage says a DVD will be released on June 22 that not only includes Lucy playing two songs live ('Sunny', one of their oldest songs, from their Lucy van Pelt days, and 'Shiosai', a new song that hasn't been released yet), but also has footage of live performances by other great Japanese groups including: punk band Lolita 18-gou; shoegazer band Condor 44; pop rockers School Girl 69; and Okinawan girl band Bleach, among others. It's called DVD INDIES ROCK MAGAZINE DVD vol.4 "DRAMATIC GIRL". I'll write about it when I get a copy of it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Kaji Hideki & Spangle Call Lilli Line

Watching Kaji Hideki and Spangle call Lilli line play at the Kichijoji Star Pine's Café Monday night made me wonder how a good live band comes to be.

Spangle call was the opening act, and though I’m a huge fan of the trio’s ethereal pop music, I found myself a bit disappointed by their performance. Though the playing was skilled, they didn’t seem to connect much with the audience.

Singer Otsubo Kana is a striking figure on stage, rain thin, with weary-looking eyes and full lips. With those looks, if she were able to reach out to the audience more or show herself completely absorbed in the music, she could probably blow away the audience. As it is though, she and the two guitarists seem to be holding back, making their performance less than compelling.

Spangle call is a band comprised of three people who have full-time creative jobs and for whom the band is a side project. But they pay a price for being only part-time musicians: they’re not as good live as bands that live and breathe music 24 hours a day. The first time I saw their show I enjoyed it partly because I was awed seeing the people behind Spangle call, creators of such dazzling music. The awe had disappeared this time, however, and the show didn’t have the same impact.


I don’t own any CDs of Kaji Hideki (I’m going by the Japanese system today, family name first) and this was the first time for me to see him live. I didn’t know much about Kaji except he’s been a big name for a while in the Japanese pop scene, and led a band in the early 90’s called Bridge, of which Three Berry Icecream’s Ikemizu Mayumi was also a member.

He came on stage wearing what looked like a mutant giant Panama hat, and started the show doing two songs with a ukulele. Then it was an hour and a half of spirited pop, during the course of which three strings on two guitars broke.

Kaji’s song lyrics seemed to revolve around doing romantic things with girlfriends. A group of girls standing behind me kept on saying among themselves that he should take off his gigantic hat so they could see his face. He chatted in a giggly way between songs. But once the songs started, a look of deep concentration appeared on his face and his tenor voice soared.

Kaji plays pop, happy music that isn’t heavy, but his renditions were gripping. Sheer talent and long experience no doubt help in making musicians do well on stage, but they also need a certain attitude, that they’re going to make the crowd go crazy. Kaji had that attitude.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

AuroraNote; Live House Vs. Club

AuroraNote at the Shimokitazawa Garage. Posted by Hello

For the sake of simplicity I’ve often written that I went to see this or that band at a CLUB, when in reality I saw the band at what is called in Japan a LIVE HOUSE. There’s a difference between the two for the Japanese. A live house is a (usually) small hall with a stage and sound system, where the audience stands and listens to live music. A club, on the hand, is a space for people to dance to DJ-ed music.

Friday night I got to go to both a live house and a club in a single evening, and found out I’m a live house guy rather than a clubber.

The live house was the Garage in Shimokitazawa, and I went there to see the bands AuroraNote and Winnie. My friend Hironobu Hirata, the bassist for Swinging Popsicle, also plays for AuroraNote. In his thirties, Hirata is about ten years older than the other three members of the band, and it seems he plays the role of a sage in the band, a veteran of the music scene who was behind the success of Swinging Popsicle, one of Japan’s great guitar pop bands.

As with most live house shows, the Garage show started around 7PM with an opening band, and then Winnie was up next and played a good show. AuroraNote was the third and final act, and when I looked around at the remaining audience I saw that, without exaggeration, I was about the only guy in the crowd of about fifty people.

They are a good-looking band, probably partly explaining their appeal to the womenfolk. But they also play energetic and soulful music, a sort of blues-y American rock that reminds me a bit of another Japanese band, the Triceratops. AuroraNote has just released their first album, Sekai no Shikumi [‘The Way the World Works’, my translation], and they are about to go on a national tour. It was a satisfying, rocking show—I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t become popular with the guys too.

Another shot of AuroraNote. Posted by Hello

After the Garage show, I headed from the hippie-ish Shimokitazawa neighborhood to the trendy Nishi-Azabu area to catch an all-night show at the Yellow club.

I’m NOT a clubber so I didn’t know this until that evening, but the Yellow has apparently been around for more than a decade. In the stairs leading down to the club was a line of people waiting to get in, a scene you see outside of discos everywhere in the world. I had an invitation so cut in front of the line to get into the club.

Once inside, I was tempted to leave immediately. The club, divided into a bar and dance floor, was packed, with people rushing to and fro busily. Wearing a dress shirt I felt overdressed, and the bag I carried with me was out of place in a venue meant for dancing (and I’m not a dancer).

The dance floor was as crowded as Tokyo trains in the morning rush hour, except here people moved around and bumped into you more. As I watched the dancing crowd, I got the feeling I often get listening to big DJ-ed events: aren’t these people reacting excessively positively to pretty minor DJ techniques? The DJ changes the music to a song everyone knows, and the crowd goes wild. I almost hoped these young dancers were on drugs.

The band I had come to see was a sort of fusion-jazz unit called I-Dep. They seemed good, but I have to confess I had a strong urge get out of the place after a couple of songs, and that’s what I did. Again, the crowd seemed to cheer the band way in excess of what the band played called for, and all through the performance, wild-eyed groups of men pushed through the crowd to head for wherever they were headed, a big distraction.

Later, I thought about the possibility that maybe by skipping most of the show, I was missing music that was NEW. When jazz in the 20’s and rock in the 50’s were fresh and about to bloom, people danced to the music. It was only after the music became more established that people listened to the music sitting down. Maybe the music being played to the seemingly mindless crowd was something that would similarly be performed in concert halls down the line. If that is the case, I guess I will have to miss the next big thing—I want to listen to my music in peace in a live house.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

One Year

One year since I started Japan Live! (Wonder how many more.)

Pizzicato Five Nomiya Maki Blog

Pizzicato Five fans! Singer Nomiya Maki has started her own blog. (Thanks to for info.) It looks good so far, but unfortunately for non-Japanese speakers, it's in Japanese.

I like her second post, where she talks about how she has good constitution and only called in sick once her whole time in Pizzicato. That was when a music video was supposed to be filmed on a boat in Tokyo Bay, but she had an upset stomach and thought she wouldn't return if she went to sea.

The filming was postponed until a later date, and on that day when was doing make-up on the bus over, Yasuharu Konishi came by and gave her a small bouquet of yellow and orange gerbera flowers. This was a sweet gesture because Nomiya was feeling guilty about having missed the previous filming, she writes.

But now that she asks Konishi about this incident, he doesn't seem to remember and only recalls that 30 boxed lunches for staffers went to waste because the first filming was canceled, or maybe Konishi is just being shy, Ms. Nomiya says.